Childhood, it has been said, is an invention of the modern world. It’s really just in the past few hundred years that those under 18 years have been seen and treated as distinct from adults, with the right to safety and security, education and much more and with special days, like November 20th’s Universal Children’s Day, dedicated to them.
Universal Children’s Day was established in 1954 as a United Nations initiative to “promote international togetherness and awareness among children worldwide.” Nearly six decades after its creation, it is both a great time to be a child and one in which childhood is under threat, with young people finding themselves confronted with a host of challenges.
1. Today’s children will live in a far warmer world.
Photo via Takver/Flickr.
The little kids on my New Jersey street might see a warm day in mid-November as a boon, enabling them to ride their scooters and play on their swing sets a little longer. If the world keeps warming up at the same pace — this year is on course to be one of the hottest ever — autumn and winter could become the only pleasant times to play outside.
Global warming has made summers warmer and wetter. The world today’s children are inheriting has been radically changed by the fossil fuels we’ve consumed in the name of industrial development and for our convenience.
2. Lions and tigers and bears — what are those?
Photo via Tom/Flickr.
Elephants, tigers, polar bears and penguins. These are just some of the animals that populate many a fairy tale and story that children grow up hearing. Conservationists have been issuing increasingly dire warnings that, due to poachers and a seemingly unstoppable global demand for exotic animals and/or their ivory tusks, fur, or who knows what else, animals like the elephant and polar bear could go extinct in our children’s lifetimes.
Even more, the continued depletion of rainforests (destruction of Brazil’s Amazon has risen by 28 percent after four straight years of decline) doesn’t bode well for the survival of the wildlife and fauna there.
3. Cough, cough, cough: Mom, why can’t I breathe?
An 8-year-old Chinese girl was recently diagnosed with lung cancer in the province of Jiangsu, the result of the heavily polluted air that hangs over many of China’s cities, including the capital of Beijing. Many middle class Chinese families have become eager to leave the country so their children can grow up without having to don a face mask whenever they go outside.
That’s China. While pollution in the United States isn’t nearly as bad, poor air quality due to traffic, carbon emissions and more does kids no favors and has been linked to childhood asthma and other respiratory diseases. If we want it to be possible for kids still to go outside and play, we’ve got to figure out other ways to power our vehicles and our society.
4. School, and home, just aren’t safe
Photo via -Christophe-/Flickr.
These are by no means all the shootings that have occurred in recent memory at U.S. schools. Even after Newtown, even after a Nevada middle schooler recently killed a math teacher and then took his own life, the United States has yet to get serious about gun reform. Instead, there have been calls for teachers to carry firearms.
In addition, hundreds of children also die every year in the United States in accidental shootings. 2,694 died in 2010; that’s 15 children and teens every week. Neither school nor home is safe for kids if there’s a gun around.
5. The Internet has made trafficking, exploitation and bullying easier.
The Internet has opened a world of information and interaction for us, making it possible to answer your child’s every last question without digging out a dusty volume of an aging encyclopedia — and the internet has made the world a lot less safe for children.
Social media and other sites have provided traffickers with new tools to recruit victims and solicit customers. Teenagers have killed themselves after being bullied on Facebook. Parents and schools have found themselves navigating unknown territory to protect children while not stepping overly much on their need to explore and be independent.
6. The Internet offers a world of knowledge.
Photo via One Laptop Per Child/Flickr.
That said, the internet and new technologies have to be commended for making it possible for children to learn about an untold wealth of information, all while still at home or school. They can share their ideas via websites, blogs, YouTube; they can take classes online, learn how to program, you name it.
It’s marvelous though, having myself grown up in an era when televisions were still black and white with antennas, one does wonder what would many of today’s kids do without the internet to learn, entertain themselves and communicate?
7. Healthcare has vastly improved for many children.
Vaccines, drugs (including the unfortunately overused antibiotics), advances in diagnosis and treatment of diseases including childhood cancer, psychiatric disorders, neurological conditions and other ailments: modern medicine has done much to keep children healthy in the industrialized West. That said, it’s also arguable that the modern Western diet and lifestyle are contributing to additional health problems including diabetes and obesity.
It also must be noted that, while modern medicine has made huge advances, not everyone is able to access the treatment and care they need. We still need to figure out how to make sure as many children as possible receive proper medical care so they grow up with good nutrition and are protected against deadly infectious diseases.
8. The needs of children with disabilities are recognized.
Photo via Achilles International/Flickr
It’s All About Ability is the theme for this year’s Universal Children’s Day. Too often, children with disabilities are invisible, left without access to healthcare and education and more likely to face neglect and abuse — the very sort of treatment that children with disabilities have often been subjected to in previous centuries.
Children with disabilities have the same rights and protections as children without disabilities. In the United States, their right to education is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, under which kids with disabilities must have a free and appropriate education. Technology has helped children with disabilities show what they know in ways never before possible. Augmentative communication devices such as the Dynavox (and the iPad, via certain apps) help kids who can’t talk to communicate. Hospitals, restaurants and other public places have come under fire for not offering equal treatment to kids with disabilities.
A deeper understanding of difference among people — that there’s no such thing as “normal” — has led to greater acceptance about individuals, and certainly children, with disabilities.
9. There is growing acceptance of LGBTQ teens and their needs.
Photo via JessicaLucia/Flickr
Broader acceptance of difference has helped to fight intolerance and discrimination against LGBTQ teens. Teens have many more resources to turn to such as the Trevor Project and the It Gets Better Project.
There’s still a long way to go as incidents of bullying and violence against LGBTQ teens make clear. With gay marriage now legal in 15 U.S. states, today’s LGBTQ teens can grow up knowing that marrying the person they love is their right.
10. Children have legal rights.
On November 20, 1989, the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defends children (under the age of 18) as individuals with “rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development.”
Historically, children have been considered the property of their parents; in the very early days of ancient Rome, children could be exchanged to pay off debts. Nonetheless, the notion that children have rights particular to them due to their minority status and that these rights are legally protected and universal has only become more acknowledged in the past fifty years.
Children’s rights now include the right to associate with both of their parents as well as basic needs such as food, education, healthcare, security, protection of civil rights and freedom from discrimination.
This wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, though. How else do you think that is childhood better now, or has become more challenging?
Photos from Thinkstock unless otherwise noted.